France's defense minister reaffirmed Friday that his country will keep 1,000 troops in Mali to fight radical Islamic militants even after the arrival later this year of more than 12,000 U.N. peacekeepers.
In a visit to the volatile northeastern city of Gao, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian addressed reporters a day after the U.N. Security Council authorized the deployment of the peacekeeping force.
"From now on we are in the post-war phase. The U.N. resolution adopted yesterday will allow for the arrival of a force to stabilize the country," he told reporters. "But France will keep about 1,000 soldiers to carry on with military operations."
During Le Drian's visit to Mali, he met with the country's interim president as well as with Gen. Ibrahim Dahrou Dembele to discuss efforts underway to train the Malian military.
Dembele also highlighted the difficulties that remain in the Kidal region of Mali despite the French military successes.
The area has been patrolled by French and Chadian forces, as local authorities have refused the presence of Malian soldiers whom they accuse of human rights abuses.
Dembele, though, said that secular Tuareg rebels in the area known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad were complicating efforts.
"The problem is right now they are going out into other small villages," he told the French defense minister.
Some Malians are already questioning how successful the United Nations peacekeeping mission to their country will be given its limited mandate and the volatile mix of armed groups across the north.
The U.N. force is tasked with helping to restore peace after a French-led military operation was launched in January to dislodge radical Islamic fighters who had seized control of the country's vast north.
However, the U.N. peacekeepers will not be authorized to launch offensive military operations or chase terrorists in the desert, which French forces will continue to do, although France is aiming to downscale its presence in its former colony by year-end.
Daouda Sangare, an entrepreneur in Bamako, questioned how much the peacekeepers would do to protect civilians because of their limited mandate. Other U.N. peacekeepers in Africa have been accused of failing to protect local populations from attack, he said.
"The U.N. forces will only be coming to collect their salaries," he said. "We have seen the example in Congo, where the M23 rebels entered Goma and the U.N.'s blue helmets were there in the city and did not protect the population. There were deaths and injuries."
On July 1 the U.N. peacekeepers are supposed to take over from a 6,000-member African-led mission now in Mali, although the deployment date is subject to change depending on security conditions.
The transformation into a U.N.-led mission will be a positive step because it will have considerable financial backing, said Ousmane Diarra, a Bamako-based politician.
"Until now, the African forces that have been in Mali have been financed by their countries," he said. "That was a worry for us because it was not clear that the African countries could continue to finance their military mission in Mali."
Mali fell into turmoil after a March 2012 coup created a security vacuum that allowed secular Tuareg rebels to take over the country's north as a new homeland. Months later, the rebels were kicked out by Islamic jihadists who carried out public executions, amputations and whippings.
When the Islamists started moving into government-controlled areas in the south, France launched a military offensive on Jan. 11 to oust them. The fighters, many linked to al-Qaida, fled the major towns in the north but many went into hiding in the desert and continue to carry out attacks including suicide bombings.
"We know it's going to be a fairly volatile environment and there will certainly be some attacks against peacekeepers where they will have to defend themselves," U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters on Thursday.
France is gradually reducing its presence in Mali — currently just under 4,000 troops — and French officials said they expect to have roughly 1,000 there by year-end. Some 750 of those will be devoted to fighting the insurgent groups, officials said.
The U.N. force will also operate alongside a European Union mission that is providing military training to the ill-equipped Malian army, which was left in disarray by the March 2012 coup.
Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.